October 23, 2017

The welfare illusion

It is undoubtedly true that welfare is playing an ever increasing role in the life of industrial nations, but to what effect? Does it really serve to eliminate poverty? In the U.S. the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), was set up as part of the Government anti-poverty programme. In the space of a few years it succeeded in spending billions of dollars, yet, as Howard J. Phillips, its Acting Director, admitted,

“some of the projects founded by this agency have kept a lot of people comfortable in their poverty, but this agency has not done enough to lift people out of poverty.”

But can this really be achieved by means of welfare?

The Health, Education and Welfare Office (HEW) has taken over the OEO projects. It is at present spending over a hundred billion dollars a year, but the more it spends the more it seems to need. At the current rate, the figure should increase, within the next ten years, to something approaching five billion dollars, or nearly half the total GNP of the U.S. today, which in view of the host of other massive expenditures which are required to keep that increasingly unstable society functioning, will simply not be available. If it were it would mean that just about two thousand dollars worth of welfare (equal to forty times the income of the average citizen of India) would be heaped on every man, woman and child in the States.

Even in the U.K., more than two thousand five hundred million pounds are spent annually on social benefits, and this only represents a fraction of the true cost of welfare, which should include the vast sums spent on education, housing and health. Although the country cannot afford the present cost of these services, it is likely to increase very substantially. Sir Keith Joseph, during the last Conservative Government, asked every Local Authority to submit to his Department of Health and Social Security, plans for the development of social services in the next decade. Significantly, this was the first time that forecasts of expenditure had been asked for so far ahead. The results were quite frightening. Well before the ten year period is through, social work and ‘caring’ organizations will be among the most significant employers of manpower. If one takes into account the ever increasing number of clients, this represents a huge section of the population who are either helping or being helped and are supported or subsidised from rates and taxes.

Among other things the forecasts showed a need for three hundred thousand extra social workers to deal with individuals and families who have become as much hooked on social benefits as any teenager on drugs. In industrial countries the numbers who have become dependent on welfare is indeed alarming, and this increases all the time. In the U.S., it has gone up from about four million to fifteen million in ten years, and no end is in sight.

What is more this trend has very serious social implications. We tend to classify the members of our industrial society in accordance with whether they fulfil manual or intellectual functions, whether they are blue collar or white collar workers, whether, in fact, they belong to the working classes or the middle classes. This is an increasingly unsatisfactory distinction. Many manual workers have become as affluent as intellectual ones. They have come to be, from the sociological point of view, absorbed in the middle classes, and are as conservative as they are, perhaps indeed more conservative, since they do not tend to share their liberal conscience. The key distinction should now be between those who regard themselves as part of society, in that they have a definite status within it; it provides them with a goal structure and a socially acceptable means of achieving it, and those who, on the contrary, live on its periphery and do not really belong to it. Homer referred to these latter as “the hearthless, clanless, tribeless ones”. Plato described the proletarian of a Hellenic city as,

“he who dwells within the city without falling into any of the categories of the city, whom one can call neither trader, nor artisan, neither knight nor hoplite, but only poor or indigent.”

It is they, as we shall see, who are the true poor—for whatever material benefits they may obtain, these cannot compensate for their lack of identity and their social deprivation.

Indeed, according to Jordan, in his book Paupers, welfare is systematically creating a new class of poor. A combination of low wages, high prices and numerous rebates ensure that the harder they work, the worse off they become. Eventually they sink into the ‘poverty trap’. When this happens they slowly become distinguished from their more successful working-class fellows, who despise them as idlers and scroungers. Thus these two groups grow further and further apart, for their interests are manifestly different.

“The worker tries to maximize his work through overtime, bonuses and productivity deals and to minimise his contribution through rates and taxes. The claimant tries to maximize his income through claims and avoids work because it may often reduce his income.”

Attitudes are bound to harden and, as Jordan points out,

“the policy of the Labour Government, by pressing for higher benefits and pensions which will diminish the number of independent workers and increase the number of paupers, can only accentuate this trend.”

It is leading also to the development of a right wing working class that wishes increasingly to distinguish itself from the claiming class, and that has ever less sympathy for the welfare orientated policies of Labour’s left wing.

The answer, it might be argued, would be to avoid providing welfare on the present scale. But is this possible? How can an elaborate and highly vulnerable industrial society function if it harbours in its midst a vast multitude of starving and desperate people? Something must be done to make their life tolerable—even if it be but in order to prevent them rising up to destroy the society which so effectively excludes them.

In fact welfare, with all its attendant evils, is an inevitable part of industrial society, and it seems likely that when welfare services break down, as soon they must, the most terrible chaos will ensue, leading more often than not, to the collapse of any semblance of social order.

If the countries of the Third World have been able to dispense with elaborate social services, it is that their traditional social structures have survived. In such conditions welfare is ensured, as it was in the past, by the family and the community, without the aid of Governmental institutions. If life in Calcutta still goes on, in material conditions which people in the West would regard as quite intolerable, it is because the Hindu culture, which ensures the cohesion of the family and the small community, is so strong.

Welfare services, in a modern society, are not only required to cater for the problem of unemployment, but for all the other consequences of the breakdown of the family structure. Families are no longer capable of looking after their own old people, who are consigned in increasing numbers to institutions for the aged. In the U.K. a vast proportion of the patients in mental institutions are in fact old people who simply have nowhere else to go. Also a growing proportion of hospital beds are occupied by old people suffering from minor ailments which, because of their age, suffice to make them incapable of looking after themselves, but whose condition is unlikely to be improved by medical treatment. In the U.K. the care of the age already accounts for 45 per cent of the total cost of welfare, and at present trends, with the proportion of the old in the total population increasing annually, this could have grown by another thirty per cent by the end of the century. Needless to say these trends will be reversed long before then, but at a cost of terrible suffering to a lot of people.

Crèches for young children are also required in ever greater numbers as more and more women go out to work, and can no longer look after their own children. The educational system is being overstrained to accommodate increasing numbers of emotionally disturbed children, the products of unsatisfactory or broken homes. In many schools the teachers are more occupied in keeping order than in teaching. And in this task they are increasingly less successful. Indeed violence in schools is reaching unheard of levels, with more and more teachers being beaten up. It seems only a matter of time before rape and even murder of teachers will happen here, as it already does in the U.S.A.

An even greater police force, more and more lawyers, and ever more numerous and massive prisons are also required. In the U.S. expenditure on these institutions has now reached thirteen billion dollars; yet crime is increasing at an even greater rate, so much so in fact that it is now regarded in many cities as the principle social problem that America has to face, more important than inflation or unemployment.

One might well ask whether any of these institutions are indeed capable of solving the social problems they are designed to deal with. The answer is quite clearly no. Even if we could afford to pay for their continued expansion, one can say quite emphatically that they would not enable us to solve any real problems. All they can possibly do is mask their symptoms and, by rendering them more tolerable, serve in this manner to perpetuate them.

The old people’s home is simply not a substitute for the family. In a stable self-regulating social system, as Linton writes in The Study of Man,

“The care of aged and infirm members is an almost universal function Of family. There is no society in which the individual’s connection with his family group is severed as soon as his usefulness to it is passed. Having given service the old are entitled to receive service in return.”

Nor is the crèche a substitute for the environment a family provides, and the notion that the educational system can remedy any defects which might occur in the early stages of the socialisation process is indefensible on theoretical grounds and cannot in any case be maintained in the light of the massive empirical evidence to the contrary. Nor, quite clearly, can the police, the law courts and the prisons replace effective social controls.

Crime is no problem in a tribal or peasant society. Public opinion is far too powerful to permit deviations from the social norm. The fear of ridicule is often a sufficient deterrent. If this does not work a deviant will find himself boycotted, and will become a social outcast. Among other things, people will no longer come to his feasts—the worst possible insult—and if this is not effective he will be expelled from his community, which for a man in a tribal society is a fate worse than death.*

The disintegration of the family and community gives rise not only to a need for institutions, but also increases the demand for consumer goods and technological devices of all kinds, for if people live in extended family groups they have no need for washing machines, vacuum cleaners and the rest of the domestic gadgetry which is now regarded as a necessity of life in modern urban societies, because there are always enough members of the family around to fulfil the domestic chores. What is more they are unlikely to have been subjected to the industrial propaganda which, in our society, leads people to identify this sort of work with drudgery, and to regard it as more fulfilling to earn money working at an assembly line miles from home, in order to buy domestic appliances which will accomplish it for them. Nor do people living in extended family groups require more than a fraction of the houses and apartments, which even the richest industrial nation is today increasingly less capable of providing for all its citizens. Indeed in the U.K. it can be shown that the housing shortage has largely been caused by the dramatic fall in the number of people living in each house—from about ten at the beginning of the century, to two and a half at the present time—a trend which has by no means ended.

In conclusion, State Welfare is not a means of solving the social problems that face us today. On the contrary, by depriving the family and the community of its traditional responsibilities it is accelerating the process of social disintegration of which many of our problems—crime, delinquency, vandalism, drug addiction, alcoholism and so on—are but the symptom.

*It is interesting that as a society disintegrates, these controls become ever less effective. In Rome the most severe penalty was ‘interdiction of fire and water’, which deprived the citizen of religious and civic rights, and for all practical purposes forced him to leave the country. The death penalty existed but all citizens were free to take the option of leaving the country, which was considered tantamount to the death penalty. It is highly significant that as Roman society disintegrated these practices fell into abeyance. Under the Empire, interdiction by fire and water was replaced by two new types of banishment—‘deportation’ and ‘relegation’ which involved seclusion in distant and disagreeable places, of which the worst was supposed to be Sardinia and an oasis in the Libyan desert. Thus exile was no longer enough – now it had to be exile to a disagreeable place. The next step could only be imprisonment, i.e. institutionalised punishment.

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